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A business based on principle Featured

9:39am EDT July 22, 2002

No labyrinthine business plans or celestial investors shadowed Margaret and Philip Nabors when they split the cost of a $60 cooking pot for their first catering gig.

Nor did they stray far from their deepest personal passions when they evolved over the past 20 years from their original market in the Valley to the 56,000 square feet of their new Solon store.

The owners of the Mustard Seed Market, based in Montrose and recently expanded into Solon, have used a consistent set of guiding principles: honesty, imagination and sustainability. These principles have driven every decision that has shaped the enterprise's stores, restaurants, entertainment and education programs and catering services.

The Mustard Seed management style is, in Philip Nabors' words, "radically decentralized." The store is a bundle of diverse services, departments and programs, each with its own unique operational and growth requirements. With 400 well-educated and creative employees who think of themselves more as talent than costs, Nabors has discovered that he cannot manage -- only unleash.

His approach is simple: "We show them where the playing field is, inspire them, aim them, and let them go without getting in their way. We invest a lot of authority in our department managers to make decisions."

One of the more curious dimensions of the enterprise is the Nabors' business plan. Driven by the principle of sustainability, Mustard Seed inspires its present with a future infused by the imagination of a 500-year plan. The plan is centered on the question all growing enterprises contemplate: What business are we in?

The Nabors' answer is that Mustard Seed is in the business of life support. The 500-year plan rolls out accordingly. In the first phase, grow more stores, vertically integrate the company with local and regional farmers and processors, and from there, support the development of demonstration villages.

In the second phase, focus on biosphere competencies related to air, water and waste product recycling. By the third phase, you're positioned to support sustainable life communities of intergalactic space travel. Nabors clearly doesn't propose this construct as a prediction, only an effective provocation to evoke as much growth potential within the enterprise and its value ecology as possible.

In the meantime, the business is beta testing one of its newest ideas: Chefs are being prepared to go into customers' homes to provide anything from meals prepared according to nutritional requirements to meals for the next night and lunches for the next day. If the concept takes off, customers can even request wine specialists and waiters.

According to Nabors, "How people will be taking meals in the future will change radically."

Other innovations include satellite meal stores located, for example, in urban and rural areas that cannot support large-scale supermarkets. When you're in the business of life support, the boundaries for innovation are far from claustrophobic.

The business ethics of Mustard Seed Market are also as unique as its vision and vitality. Even in a climate of virtually zero unemployment, Nabors stubbornly maintains, "I refuse the warm body approach."

His selectivity in people selecting food needs to remain as selective as the standards he holds for his the goods he sells. When it comes to suppliers and vendors, "Truth is the foundation of how we do things," he says. "We do not feel we have to prosper on the backs of others."

Even the Nabors' spin on the competition is, giving this ethic, understandably cooperative. He notes, "We have a warped view of the competition. The people we would expect to call 'competition' are folks we are helpful toward," providing advice, partnerships in legislative efforts and education.

At the heart of Mustard Seed's uniqueness are its standards for products, whether they are food, nutritional supplement or personal care, housekeeping or pet products. Seeing themselves as important links in a life support chain, Nabors sees everyone in that chain as stewards.

The emphasis on small business suppliers is an important part of this equation. With the obsession with selection, Nabors indicates, "We'd rather be a more important customer to a small company than an unimportant customer to a big company."

To this end, Nabors hosts a whole palette of educational programs and invigorates efforts at the local and national levels aimed at better education of government decision-makers and the public who influence their decisions. From where Nabors sits, the large agribusinesses tinkering with pesticides and genetically altered food sources may last only as long as their lack of education about impacts and alternatives, not to mention a radically different perspective on the future of life support ecologies and policies.

Between the business plan and its ethics, Mustard Seed offers an elegant solution to one of the more chronic issues facing all growth-eager business owners today -- employees needing motivation.

Because it offers its employees a great story along with great jobs, employees bring to their work an intrinsic belief that they are selling trust as the prime ingredient behind every product and service. As Nabors is quick to point out, "It's not what you sell, but how you sell it and why you sell it."After all, one of their mantras is that "the ultimate job satisfaction is believing in what we do and having integrity in how we do it."

How to reach: Mustard Seed Market & Café, (330) 666-7333

 Jack Ricchiuto is a management consultant and author. He can be reached through his Web site at www.newpossibilities.net.